Why Can’t Anti-Imperial Wars Be Justified?

By David Swanson, World BEYOND War, June 22, 2022

Let’s say that we are participants in a popular democratic socialist human-rights-loving movement and successful and fairly-elected national government, and we’re invaded and overthrown by a rightwing military, foreign or domestic, with horrific violence. What should we do?

I’m not asking what can we do that might have better results than doing nothing. Almost anything meets that standard.

I’m not asking what can we do that we’ll be able to claim is less evil than what the invaders and occupiers just did. Almost anything meets that standard.

I’m not asking what can we do that it would be offensive for some distant safe resident of the very empire that just invaded us to lecture us on the evils of. We’re victims. We can’t be blamed for anything. We can declare our right to do anything. But anything is too broad a license. It doesn’t help us at all in narrowing down our choices to what we should do.

When I ask “What should we do?” I am asking: What has the best chances of the best results? What is the most likely to end the occupation in a way that lasts, in a way that discourages future invasions, and in a way that is not highly likely to escalate and worsen the horrific violence.

In other words: what is the best thing to do? Not: what can I find some excuse for doing? But: what is the best thing to do — not for the purity of our hearts, but for the outcome in the world? What’s our most powerful tool available?

The evidence has clearly shown that nonviolent actions, including against invasions and occupations and coups, have a significantly higher chance of being successful — with those successes usually far longer lasting — than what has been accomplished by violence.

The whole field of study — of nonviolent activism, diplomacy, international cooperation and law, disarmament, and unarmed civilian protection — is generally excluded from school text books and corporate news reports. We’re supposed to treat as fact the idea that Russia has not attacked Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia because they are members of NATO, but not to know that those countries kicked out the Soviet military using less weaponry than your average American brings on a shopping trip — in fact no weaponry at all, by nonviolently surrounding tanks and singing. Why isn’t something that weird and dramatic known? It’s a choice that’s been made for us. The trick is to make our own choices about what not to know, which depends on finding out what is out there to learn about and tell others about.

In the first Palestinian intifada in the 1980s, much of the subjugated population effectively became self-governing entities through nonviolent noncooperation. Nonviolent resistance in Western Sahara has forced Morocco to offer an autonomy proposal. Nonviolent movements have removed U.S. bases from Ecuador and the Philippines, and are right now preventing a new NATO base being created in Montenegro. Coups have been stopped and dictators toppled. Failure is of course very common. So is death and suffering during the process. But few would look at one of these successes and wish to go back and redo it violently in order to have a lesser chance of success, a higher likelihood of fueling an ongoing cycle of violence and defeat, and probably a lot more death and suffering in the process, just so that some of the people who died might have done so with guns in their hands. Conversely, even while celebrating a violent struggle with at least a momentary success but horrific loss of life, many would jump at the chance to magically redo it just as successfully but without the violence and loss of loved ones. Those who would opt for violence in such scenarios would not be engaged in strategy but in a preference for violence for its own sake.

Yes but surely even the imperial Western warmongers are right about war often being the last resort, only wrong about which sides of which wars that justification applies to. Surely, Russia, for example, had no other possible resort than to dramatically escalate the war in Ukraine? (It’s a bit strange for me to take up a war by an imperialist nation like Russia as an example of an anti-imperialist struggle, but for many opponents of U.S. imperialism there is no other imperialism, and for most people right now there is no other war.)

Actually, the idea that Russia had no choices isn’t any more true than that the U.S. had no choice but to ship mountains of weapons into Ukraine, or no choice but to attack Afghanistan or Iraq or Syria or Libya, etc. We can stipulate the beginning of a long list of facts (hoping to imply awareness of others): The U.S. lies about and threatens Russia, provocatively builds alliances and stations weapons and performs war rehearsals; the U.S. facilitated a coup in Kyiv in 2014; Ukraine denied its eastern regions the autonomy they could claim under Minsk II; most of the people in Crimea have no desire to be liberated; etc. But no one invaded or attacked Russia. The NATO expansion and weapons placement were horrible actions, but not crimes.

Remember when the U.S. claimed that Iraq had WMDs, that Iraq would only likely use them if attacked, and then went ahead and attacked Iraq in the name of preventing the use of the WMDs?

Russia claimed NATO was a threat, knew that attacking Ukraine would guarantee a huge upsurge in NATO popularity, membership, and weapons purchases, and went ahead and attacked Ukraine in the name of preventing NATO expansion.

The two cases have many important differences, but the two horrific, mass-murderous actions were blatantly counterproductive on their own terms. And other, better options were available in both cases.

Russia could have continued mocking the daily predictions of an invasion and created worldwide hilarity, rather than invading and making the predictions simply off by a matter of days; continued evacuating people from Eastern Ukraine who felt threatened by the Ukrainian government, military, and Nazi thugs; offered evacuees more than $29 to survive on; asked the UN to oversee a new vote in Crimea on whether to rejoin Russia; joined the International Criminal Court and asked it to investigate crimes in Donbas; sent into Donbas many thousands of unarmed civilian protectors; put out a call to the world for volunteers to join them; etc.

The worst thing about arguing in the West for the justification of warmaking by Russia, Palestine, Vietnam, Cuba, etc., is not just that it’s telling oppressed people to use weak tools unnecessarily likely to fail, but that it’s telling the U.S. public that in one way or another the institution of war is justified. After all, the Pentagon and its most fervent supporters see themselves as an oppressed and endangered victim of scary irrational threats from around the globe. Keeping war abolition out of the minds of people in the U.S. has horrific results for the world, not only through wars, but also through the spending, and the damage to the environment, the rule of law, civil liberties, self-governance, and struggles against bigotry, that is caused by the institution of war.

Here’s a website that makes the case for ending all war: https://worldbeyondwar.org

I sometimes debate war supporters on the question of whether war can ever be justified. Usually my debate opponent tries to avoid discussing any actual wars, preferring to talk about grandmothers and muggers in dark alleyways, but when pressed defends the U.S. side of World War II or some other war.

I’ve now set up an upcoming debate with someone I expect to more readily cite examples of wars he finds justifiable; but I expect him to try to justify the anti-U.S. side in each war. Of course, I can’t know what he’ll argue, but I’m going to be more than happy to admit that I have no possible excuse for telling Palestinians what to do, that the gravest evils done in Palestine are done by Israel, and that Palestinians just simply — damn it — have the right to fight back. What I don’t expect to hear is any convincing evidence that the smartest path to the most likely and lasting success is through war.

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